The Right Deal: The Conservative Anti-Poverty Approach

by Prof. Patrick Garry:

Job creation at every level.  The ability of every parent to choose the school his or her child attends.  A greater mobility for those at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.  A reformed and more affordable higher education system.  Targeted tax relief for low-income workers and parents.  Greater access to job skills education programs.

Right Way Just AheadConservatives advocate all these policies, and yet they continue to be charged with doing nothing to address the plight of the struggling members of society.  Liberals charge conservatives with caring only about the rich, even though Democrats represent the wealthiest districts in America.  Liberals charge conservatives with being allies of the rich against the poor, even though during the Obama presidency the rich have prospered like never before and the poor and middle class have either stagnated or declined.

Despite these accusations, it is not just the Left that is to blame for the perpetuation of this image of conservatism as unconcerned about the poor.  Conservatives must also shoulder some of the responsibility for not aggressively enough promoting their anti-poverty agenda and for conceding this policy issue to liberals for far too long.

To reverse this image, conservatives must not only assert their poverty proposals, they must make the goal of improving the lives of vulnerable people a central focus of their entire policy agenda.  But this central focus does not involve a change in conservative principles or policies, since economic mobility and advancement lies at the core of the conservative philosophy.  What it does mean is that conservatives must measure all policies by their effect on the vulnerable.  For instance, if certain income tax cuts won’t help the vulnerable, since nearly half of all Americans have no net federal income tax liability, then perhaps such cuts are not the issue that should define or occupy conservatives.

Conservatives have a great starting place in their campaign against poverty.  A free market economy has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, both here and abroad.  Even those who are poor have a much better standard of living due to economic progress.  The typical person living below the poverty line not only has electricity and running water – something he didn’t have sixty years ago – but also has microwaves, personal computers, air conditioning and cable television.  Three quarters of the poor own a car, and roughly a third have two or more cars.

This improvement in the living conditions of the poor does not mean that the plight of the vulnerable should be dismissed or ignored; it just means that the answer to the problem of poverty may well reside in something that has worked – economic progress – rather than in certain government policies that haven’t worked.

But a criticism of liberal failures is no substitute for action.  In fact, conservatives’ hesitancy to articulate a positive anti-poverty agenda only feeds the liberal claim that they don’t care about the less fortunate.  This is how President Obama, whose administration has been terrible for the poor, has been able to assail his political opponents as being indifferent to the poor and struggling.

Although conservatives criticize liberal social welfare programs, they have no objection to a safety net.  Indeed, any humane and civilized society should have a safety net to catch the unfortunate and vulnerable people, preventing them from sliding into an abject poverty they cannot survive.  But conservatives do object when these safety net programs themselves turn into a trap – trapping people in a state of dependency and preventing them from reclaiming a self-sufficiency that in turn can lead to an independent and dignified life.  A conservative safety net serves as a springboard out of poverty, rather than a permanent state of government subsidization.  A safety net’s goal cannot be the perpetual subsistence of poor Americans in barely tolerable lives – and it cannot discourage work.

The Underlying Problems of Poverty

At a time when the stock market is at record levels and Wall Street is awash in money and the rich are richer than ever, almost 48 million Americans are receiving food stamp aid, up almost 50 percent since 2009.  One in six citizens in the wealthiest economy on earth now rely on food aid from the government.  The way to understand this problem is to begin with examining the root causes of poverty.

The first cause of poverty is a lack of work.  The key to ending poverty is putting people to work.  But too often the liberal social welfare programs not only have a dampening effect on job creation, but are structured in a way that fosters dependency rather than self-sufficiency.  Today, a lower percentage of working-age Americans are working or seeking work than at any time since the Carter presidency.  But the picture gets worse when it is broken down by income group.  The wealthiest American workers recovered to full employment relatively quickly after the 2008 recession’s official end.  But the working poor’s persistent double-digit unemployment rate rivals the Great Depression.  And while small-scale entrepreneurship has traditionally represented a last-ditch path out of poverty, it is not doing so now.  New business formation remains well below pre-recession levels, and the percentage of unemployed business-starters dropped from 11 percent in 2007 to 4 percent in 2010.

A second fundamental cause of poverty is behavioral.  After all the countless studies repeating the same message, it is unquestionable that poverty in America is often intertwined with social pathologies.  Drug or alcohol abuse, criminality, domestic violence, family breakdown – all these factors have a strong correlation with poverty.

Poverty isn’t just a form of deprivation, to be cured by money; it’s a form of isolation.  According to Robert Doar, former Commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration (the city’s principal social services agency), very few married, two-parent families ever need any form of welfare.    People who marry before having children, avoid substance abuse, graduate from high school, stay out of jail, and hold even minimum wage jobs for at least a year, almost never end up living in poverty.

A third fundamental factor in escaping poverty is the ability to take advantage of opportunities for advancement.  And in modern society, the most valuable tool in this respect is education.  Economic mobility and education go hand in hand.  But in the liberal scheme, this connection is often ignored.  Instead, education is treated like all the other social welfare programs — with continual increases in public spending that serves primarily to expand the government bureaucracy.  Per-pupil federal education spending is nearly four times its 1970 level.  This has brought a sizeable increase in public education employment, but no detectable increase in student test scores in reading, math or science.

To move beyond this vicious circle of ineffectiveness, conservative policies focus directly on improving the education received by students – policies like charter schooling, vouchers, and school choice.  These policies have worked whenever they have been implemented, especially in benefitting needy children.  In one 2007 study, scholars from Harvard and the Brookings Institution found that school vouchers in New York City significantly increased the proportion of African-American students who went on to college.  And research from Stanford shows that access to charter schools reduced NYC’s black-white achievement gap by 66 percent in reading and 86 percent in math.

Conservative Policies

A new conservative activism on poverty is emerging from leaders like Representative Paul Ryan, and Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee.  To encourage work and upward mobility, Ryan proposes increasing the gap between what work pays and what welfare provides by expanding the maximum Earned Income Tax Credit for workers in low-wage, low-skill jobs.  (The EITC has been shown to draw low-income Americans into the labor force.)

Conservative policy should ensure that no one who works full time and heads a household lives in poverty.  But this can be done through a better targeted anti-poverty program than the minimum wage increase.  The Earned Income Tax Credit is an effective anti-poverty program because it targets household income, and it provides an incentive for people to work because it is only offered to working households.  The IRS estimates that in 2009 the EITC lifted nearly 7 million people out of poverty, but presently the EITC is not nearly generous enough for workers with no children.

But an emphasis on work alone is not enough.  A true anti-poverty agenda must promote strong families.  Married, two-income couples, even those earning only the minimum wage, are unlikely to fall into poverty; and children growing up in such families are just as unlikely to be poor.  Larger refundable child tax credits (applicable to both income and payroll taxes) and even savings incentives for couples of modest means would relieve some of the financial pressure than can tear apart marriages.  Currently, the size of the child care tax credit is low relative to the average costs of child care and has not been expanded since the 1980s.

As for family structure, there is little the government can do, other than removing the marriage penalties embedded in many of the transfer programs.  But the government should not discourage marriage.  And rather than focusing all its marriage efforts on same-sex marriage, it ought to put some focus on trying to salvage the increasingly threatened traditional family.  Maybe the government cannot promote a particular type of marriage, but it can at least not be discriminatory toward civic and religious groups doing so.


In the past, the Right has failed to formulate a positive, countervailing anti-poverty alternative to the failed agenda of the Left.  As a result, much of the Left’s agenda has gone into force.  So it is now incumbent on the Right to offer its own better vision for the alleviation of poverty.  A conservative antipoverty agenda is one that offers both temporary relief and longer-term institutional changes, all aimed at holding out the possibility of steady employment and stable families.

Conservatives are ideally situated to address poverty.  Given its belief in the biblical tradition of charity, the conservative approach incorporates a moral aspect never recognized by the Left, with its more materialistic focus on the relative distributions of wealth and on political objections to the private sector economy.  But this focus cannot answer why helping the disadvantaged is ultimately the right thing to do.

The Left uses its poverty agenda not primarily to advance the poor, but to advance the reach of government.  The poor becomes a reason for bigger, more active government.  And that best explains the workings and designs of many federal anti-poverty programs, as well as why the Left opposes many conservative proposals – because those proposals don’t permanently enlarge government.  The Left has becoming so wedded to a primary focus on government that it has taken a secondary focus on the real interests of the poor.

A new and aggressive conservative anti-poverty program, making a central purpose the lifting up of people who need it, will not only aid the poor, it will revive the conservative movement.  For too long, conservatives have identified themselves as fighting against the left’s mistaken policies.  But the real point of conservatism is not negativism; it is the positive pursuit of helping people achieve what they really need.  And the focus of conservatism is not an instinctual desire to build up government in the name of helping people.  Maybe government in some cases is the answer, but not the automatic and constant answer.

Patrick Garry is a professor of law at the University of South Dakota, and Director of the Hagemann Center for Legal & Public Policy Research.

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